On June 2, 1981, Ron Settles, a star football player at California State University, was on his way to his job coaching middle schoolers when he was pulled over by Signal Hill police for overspeeding. Police officers who arrested the 21-year-old claimed he did not cooperate with them, adding that he refused to exit his vehicle or show his driver’s license. They also claimed that Settles had a knife and drug paraphernalia.
The officers arrested and charged the young football player with assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer, possession of cocaine and refusing to identify himself, according to media reports. Officer Jerry Lee Brown would later admit in a newspaper interview that he had beaten Settles on the head and legs for being belligerent while he was being booked, according to the Times.
Three hours after his arrest, Settles was found dead in his jail cell. The police said they found him severely beaten and hanged by a noose fashioned from a mattress cover. The police claimed it was suicide. Curiously, the officers did not take photos of the hanging but took photos of Settles on the floor, UPI reported at the time.
Bernard Bradley, an inmate in the next cell, would testify at a coroner’s inquest that there were no mattress covers in the cells. He said Settles told him he was scared.
“On my way out I walked past Settles’ cell, and he was sitting on his bunk, leaning back against the wall. I looked in and talked to him for a minute, and I’m absolutely sure there was no mattress pad on that bunk. There was nothing on that bunk,” Bradley testified, according to a UPI report. “He was asking me about how to get out of jail, posting bail and all that. He said he’d never been in jail before and he was scared. He wanted to get out of jail. He sure never talked about killing himself.”
Settles at the time of his death had been named in several college football polls as “one of the most promising running backs on the West Coast”. His mother, Helen Settles, told UPI that he doesn’t believe his son took his own life as he had “too much to live for”.
Weeks after Settles’ death, protests were held in his community, led by activists and local clergy. The Settles family also created the Ron Settles Justice Committee and held rallies asking authorities for answers.
“The whole community grieved with us. Stevie Wonder helped to do a benefit concert to raise money for the defense of this case,” said Strong Matthews, uncle of Settles. “I believe so many people in my community and in my ethnicity had experienced similar treatment, but it did not make the news.”
The Settles family was represented by renowned lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who rose to national fame during the O.J. Simpson case. Cochran had Settle’s body exhumed, and an autopsy showed that he had been choked to death. The family was subsequently awarded $760,000 in a civil suit, though some sources say it was $1 million.
The police chief at the time resigned following the scandal. But no police officers were charged with Settles’ death after an eight-month investigation. All six officers involved in the case had refused to cooperate, pleading the fifth during questioning. That is one of the main reasons members of the Settles family continue to fight for justice for their relative. They are currently asking the community to petition City Hall to officially declare June 2 a day of remembrance for Settles.
“Ron Settles is Signal Hill’s George Floyd,” Signal Hill Mayor Edward Wilson said this June at a memorial celebration on what would have been Settles’ 63rd birthday. “His death while in the custody of the Signal Hill Police Department is a tragedy that Signal Hill is known for even to this day.”
After Settles’ death, a lot changed in the city known for being racist. The police department also underwent reforms. “Because he died, you can no longer take someone in the jail cell without reasonable visibility and accountability,” Reverend Wayne Chaney, Jr., pastor of the Antioch Church in Long Beach, told the Signal Tribune.
“Because he died, there are cameras in holding facilities. Because he died, there must be detailed accounts of every use of force while detained. We still have progress to make, but because he died, hundreds of men and women that look like him will live to return to their families no matter how long they were detained.”